What Europeans Can Teach North Americans about Memorialization

Date Published: 
May, 2004
Original Author: 
Joseph Bartolacci
Matthews International Corporation
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, May 2004

Adapted from a presentation at the 2004 ICFA Annual Convention

There is a certain passion in Europe with respect to memorialization.  One of the key differences in the United States as opposed to Europe is that in Europe, cemeteries are municipally owned, so you don't make money selling crypts. You make money memorializing. Through memorialization, they have found ways to make money and satisfy their customers' needs by diversifying.

In North America, we hear, "sell crypts," with the memorialization being secondary. The Europeans have focused on memorialization as a way of surviving.

Poland is 95 percent Catholic, has a very low cremation rate and is relatively poor on a per-capita basis. Memorialization is either done on an above-ground family mausoleum or below-ground tomb.

What is unique to a lot of the European states—and as you move farther south, it becomes more of an issue—is that space is leased. You only have the space for about 25 to 30 years, so the amount of money that is spent for 25 to 30 years for memorialization is astronomical. What happens after 25 years? Where do the remains go? The bones are moved from the initial resting places to ossuaries, where they will remain.

The Germans have their own style, evident in the style of the letters. Caggiati, where I worked, had about 15 different character styles. If you were to count the number of character styles sold in Europe, it would be 60 to 70 styles. In the United States, are we offering all these different varieties?

At a French memorial the contents are always the same: photo ceramics or cameos, lamps, vases, crosses and lots of plaques on the top. What are the plaques? They're called souvenirs. In the United States, it is traditional to send flowers to the funeral. In France, that is also true, and the family members and other guests will also buy a "souvenir." These are products with sayings, remembrances, personal tributes that the person who has purchased it has of their loved ones. They place it on the tomb. To us, that may look like clutter. To them, it's an opportunity to memorialize and personalize. To me, it's a revenue-generating idea.

As you move farther south, you start to realize some very different memorialization trends. In Spain, the cemeteries are predominately municipally owned.

In mausoleums, often the crypt front is provided by the cemetery or the municipality and the color of the stone is standardized. However, the content is completely left to the family, so you may have more than a dozen crypt fronts, no two of them the same.

In the pictures shown here, you have white, you have bronze, you have gold, you have different lettering, you have different vases—all personalization creating an opportunity to generate additional revenues. Some areas of Spain have a relatively high cremation rate, but you still have highly personalized niche fronts.

Think about the growing Latin populations in the United States and ask yourself whether they are asking for these types of memorialization options. It's not about what you like; it's about what your customer wants.

Look at the in-ground tombs (above). Look how close they are. Look at the amount of marble or granite. Look at the number of products for memorialization on the tomb. The cemeteries have the same issues that ours have—they want to keep things looking neat and clean and provide easy access for families. Often what they'll do is place nothing but gravel (no grass) in these tomb sections, so they handle the maintenance issue in a different way than we do.

This is a very poor country with a huge memorialization tradition. Despite the fact that the crypts or grave sites are probably only leased for 25 to 30 years, you will find a tremendous number of personalized products, basically purchased to be in place for one generation. Every product is different; every one has a different price.

A product you will find more the farther south you go in Europe is the book.  It will generally include a poem, a story, a family tree—whatever the family chooses as part of the memorial for that individual.

Italy has some of the strongest memorialization practices; there is a passion for memorialization. Even the poorest people in Italy have a photo, name, date, lamp and vase at their grave. I have never seen a tomb without at least those products on it. Starting from there, it's all about personalization.

As an example, one includes a statement at the bottom that says, "from your loved ones." In their minds, the memorialization is a gift from their loved ones to the deceased—they are honoring the deceased.

Crypt plates were imported to Italy from the United States and have been a tremendous success.

Normally what I've seen in the United States are relatively small candles; in Italy you see larger ones. Are we sure the smaller ones are what our families want, or are we imposing our own style on our customers—and losing an opportunity to generate more revenue by offering them options?

Lessons to Learn
There are good, better and best products. For example, a vase can be die-cast (good), sand-cast (better) or lost wax (best). Do your counselors know—do you know—what the differences are between them and why they are different prices?

If you do know, are you able to explain it to families? Are you able to put the products in customers' hands and let them feel the differences as you explain the details? That's what they do in Europe. If you heard some of their monument masons talk to you about lost wax and how intricate the pieces are and how they are one of a kind, you'd think they were selling jewelry.

If every grave has a vase, a lamp, a cameo, that's hundreds of thousands of dollars of additional revenue for the cemetery Add to that the other opportunities that may be there for a cross, a religious emblem—or a non-religious emblem—for flowers, for different size cameos at different price points, for different vases.

Stay abreast of technological changes that are constantly providing additional personalization options.

Cremation need not be a lost memorialization opportunity. Glass-front niches provide the family with additional opportunities to add personal pieces and create something that is very specific to the individual. Glass fronts also encourage higher-end products, since the urn will be seen.

I've seen a photo of a Mexican funeral home where the second floor has a room with all glass niches, filled with different urns and other items. To some of us it might look like confusion, but to the families, that's personalization. That's what they want.

Allow families to create meaningful tributes. To an extent, we've lost some of that in North America. When you walk into an American cemetery, there's some loss. Not in all cases, but in many cases, there's some loss. I've been in a small town full of immigrants where the cemetery's pretty sterile, all the graves look the same, there's no personalization.

Offer premium sections. Maybe you don't want to have extreme personalization scattered throughout your cemetery. In that case, you might want to create an area where families are allowed freedom of choice. See how it works.